Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: What To Know

As the seasons change, your skin is in direct contact with the environment. When the weather becomes hot and humid, you tend to sweat more and experience acne breakouts. Meanwhile, your skin will feel drier and even flake during the winter months due to a lack of hydration. Plus, every day, your skin accumulates dirt, oil, and makeup residue that can linger even after washing.

One solution to your skin ailments is to incorporate exfoliation into your routine. What is exfoliation? Simply put, it is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface layer of the skin, leaving behind a glowing, smooth and softer complexion. However, there’s more than one kind of exfoliation. So here’s what you should know about chemical vs. physical exfoliation.

Chemical Exfoliation

What are chemical exfoliants, and how do they work? Chemical exfoliants work by sloughing off dead skins using chemicals that break the bonds between skin cells, loosening them from the living skin layer and making them easier to wipe away. Fun fact: chemical exfoliants can be gentler than physical exfoliants.

Chemical exfoliants mostly come from natural sources, such as fruit enzymes. There are two types of exfoliants: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acids, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), including salicylic acid. While AHAs work for dry, maturing skin, BHAs work better for acne-prone, oily skin.

Physical Exfoliation

How do physical exfoliants work? They work through physical and manual movements, sloughing away dead skin cells using small, textured particles. The granules rub against the skin, buffing away dead skin cells and debris to reveal the soft skin underneath.

Remain on the lookout for exfoliants that contain Earth-friendly ingredients, such as shells, grains, ground-up beans, coffee grounds, and pumice crystals. Avoid microbead scrubs, as they’re made from plastic and have been banned in cosmetic products in many jurisdictions.


Now that you understand chemical vs. physical exfoliation, the only thing left to do is find which kind of exfoliant works for you! While the two types of exfoliants work in differing ways, you can incorporate both into your skin-care routine. If you suffer from excessive dead skin or dirt buildup, a physical exfoliant will work well. However, even better is a gentle combination of both.

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